Gideon Welles – On Lincoln’s Team, But Not Lincoln’s Rival

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Gideon Welles House (Source: Library of Congress)

This week, I continue with the theme of Cabinet officers, this time with Gideon Welles, who along with Secretary of State William Seward, were the only Cabinet officers to serve Lincoln throughout his presidency. Unlike Seward, Welles never considered himself better suited than Lincoln for the Oval Office.

Like Lincoln, his principal rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination – William Seward and Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s first secretary of the Treasury – established successful law practices before entering politics. While Gideon Wells obtained a legal education, he left the practice of law at twenty-four years old to run the Hartford Times, a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. He served in Connecticut’s General Assembly and also was appointed as the state’s postmaster by President Andrew Jackson. In the mid-1850s, he tired of the South’s control over the party and joined the Republican Party. He was 59-years-old when Lincoln chose him to serve in his Cabinet as secretary of the Navy.

Whatever Welles’ talents, historians are unflattering in their physical descriptions.  One describes him as wearing “a wig [that was] a poor match for his voluminous whiskers.” [Catton, The Coming Fury, p. 54 (1961) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Another says he was “a peculiar-looking man with a curly wig perched on his outsize head, and a flowing white beard.” [Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 232 (2005) (2006 Simon & Schuster paperback edition]

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Gideon Welles House (Source: Historic Buildings of Connecticut)

Welles’ Navy included both a “blue water navy” and a “brown water navy,” the latter often supplementing Union armies on America’s rivers, such as on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, and on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and New Orleans.

One incident during the Civil War illustrates the contrasting demeanors of Secretary of War Stanton – mercurial, temperamental, prone to panic – with that of cool, calm, and collect Gideon Welles. After the Confederacy’s ironclad, the Merrimack, sank two Union ships in Hampton Roads, Stanton famously panicked at a hastily called Cabinet meeting:

[C]rossing to a window which commanded a long view of the Potomac, he looked out and, trembling visibly, exclaimed: “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.”

Welles assured Stanton that the Merrimack would draw too much water if its commander tried to make such a cruise. He also calmly assured President Lincoln and the entire Cabinet that the Navy already had an answer in the form of its own ironclad, the Monitor, which had already reached Hampton Roads. Of course the two ships would fight to a draw, marking the end of the age of wooden warships. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 258 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Not only did Welles serve in the Cabinet throughout Lincoln’s presidency, he was there at Lincoln’s end when the president succumbed to an assassin’s bullet at a small townhouse across from Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 981-982 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

When he took office, Welles “hardly knew one end of a ship from the other.” [The Coming Fury, p. 283], But this was an age when men took on great tasks without any prior experience in the work they set out to accomplish. (One need only look at the California storekeepers who eight years later would complete the western leg of the transcontinental railroad and meet their eastern counterparts at Promontory Summit, Utah.) Four years after Gideon Welles took office, the United States Navy grew from 76 ships to a fleet of 671 and from 7,600 seamen to 51,000. [Team of Rivals, p. 672]. By all accounts, Welles ably served Lincoln and the country, helping to transform the navy from an insignificant flotilla to a fleet worthy of a world power.

You can gain a clearer understanding of how the brown navy worked hand in hand with General U.S. Grant’s troops by reading about the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in my novel, New Garden, available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing.

You can find more information about Gideon Welles at the National Parks Service’s website, www.nps.gov/resources, and at www.biography.com.

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Elections, Presidential elections, Presidents, Uncategorized

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